WASHINGTON — A concerted effort to improve the GOP's dismal standing among Hispanic voters has — like all things on the campaign trail this summer — collided with Donald Trump, whose incendiary statements have attracted widespread attention and provoked other presidential candidates to take a harder line.
Republican leaders and their allies are growing more fearful of damage done by the rhetoric, including talk of "anchor babies," building walls on the Mexican and Canadian borders, tracking immigrants like FedEx packages, and Trump's plan for mass deportations.
Some recent polling suggests Trump is damaging himself and not the party at large. But his celebrity and apparent staying power make the GOP's challenging rehabilitation project more difficult.
Already a super PAC supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton has paid for Spanish-language digital ads in Florida, Colorado and Nevada that commingle Trump's inflammatory words with other candidates — a prelude to what will become more noticeable as the election heats up.
"There's still the old theory that you move to the extreme during the primary and then move to the center for the general election. That doesn't work anymore. Latinos are paying attention now," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of Latino Partnership at the conservative American Principles Project.
"The rhetoric right now is maniacally self-destructive," said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "Even if one cannot grasp morality, one ought to grasp self-interest and demography."
Republicans have fallen short in the past two presidential elections as the share of the white vote declines and a more diverse electorate rises. Mitt Romney drew just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, down from the 31 percent John McCain received in 2008 and the 44 percent George W. Bush got in 2004.
The gravity of the situation can be summed up in one stunning figure: 50,000. That's how many Hispanic youths become eligible to vote each month.
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After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee conducted an exhaustive internal review that focused on technology and demographic changes. A report called the Growth and Opportunity Project urged a more respectful tone. "It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies," it read.
The party has invested in Hispanic outreach in states such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia. And despite stumbles — including the collapse of immigration reform in Congress in 2013 due to opposition from House Republicans — there was an expectation things would improve in 2016.
Then came Trump.
The billionaire New Yorker entered the race in June with a speech inveighing about Mexican drug pushers and "rapists." He has not let up, calling for deporting more than 11 million undocumented residents and building a huge wall along the southern border. Last week, Trump criticized former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican, for speaking Spanish in public.
"The only wall that Trump is going to be successful building is a wall between the Republican Party and the White House," said Bettina Inclan, a Republican strategist in Florida who was involved with the national GOP outreach.
"It really is eroding years of hard work," she said.
The GOP primary, with 17 candidates, would have featured tougher stances on the issue without Trump. But the standard talk of beefing up border security has been replaced with more aggressive positions.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin recently suggested it was worth exploring building a wall on the border with Canada. He then backed away, saying it was just an idea people raised to him in New Hampshire.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said last week that immigrants who come on visas should be tracked like FedEx packages to make sure they leave when their allotted time expires.
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana called for an end to birthright citizenship and declared that "immigration without assimilation is invasion."
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Bush has one of the more moderate approaches to immigration along with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
The former Florida governor has taken to emphasizing border security over other proposals he has to address immigration, which he says is important for the economy, but even Bush has been dragged down by Trump.
He faced days of scrutiny for the term "anchor babies," first used by Trump in demanding an end to birthright citizenship.
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, declined to use such language. "Those are human beings. And ultimately, they are people. They are not just statistics. They are human beings with stories," he said an interview with CNBC.
But Rubio talks less about immigration issues than Bush, still feeling burned by conservatives for helping write the Senate's 2013 legislation.
If he or Bush gets the nomination, both have the potential to make gains among Hispanics.
"A candidate like Jeb Bush not only speaks the language but the culture," said Jorge L. Arrizurieta, a longtime Bush supporter in Miami. "The Trump stuff is incredibly regretful, incredibly irresponsible and unrealistic, but I believe there's still time to fix it."
Arrizurieta said RNC chairman Reince Priebus could have pushed back at Trump's comments more publicly. "There was a huge opportunity when it all began to send a message that we are the party of Abraham Lincoln and inclusion."
Other people close to Bush were not happy to see Priebus pay Trump a personal visit recently. The GOP loyalty pledge Trump signed to great fanfare, they say, effectively validated him as a Republican at a time Bush was trying to expose his ties to Democrats.
In June, Priebus did say that Trump's words were "not helpful," but added, "We don't get to pick and choose who runs, who doesn't."
Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has tried to exploit the turmoil, aggressively courting Hispanics and other minority groups. "The party of Lincoln has become the party of Trump," she said at a Democratic gathering in late August. She has promised to go farther than President Barack Obama on the issue.
Trump has attracted a mostly white voter base turned off to politics — a "silent majority," as the candidate has said, evoking a charged term from the past. Some Republican strategists see a disaffected white electorate as the path to victory. But the demographic cliff is impossible to ignore in the long run.
Hispanics have underperformed as voters (12.5 million Hispanics voted in 2012 out of 23.7 million eligible voters) but they account for 40 percent of the growth of eligible voters in the United States through 2030, rising to 40 million, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
The Hispanic population in Florida — a must-win for Republicans to capture the White House — is also growing faster than the overall population — increasing from 17 percent in 2000 to 24 percent now. Obama got 60 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, up from 57 percent in 2008. That included growing support from younger Cuban-Americans whose parents are loyal anti-communist Republicans.
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The RNC declined to comment for this story. But the party takes some comfort in polling that shows Trump's comments may not translate to other candidates. A survey for Univision showed overwhelming disapproval among Hispanics for Trump's comments. And 6 out of 10 Hispanics surveyed said his comments represented his own views rather than the GOP at large.
More recent Gallup polling showed Trump with a negative 51 favorability rating, while Bush was at plus 11 and Rubio plus 5. But in hypothetical matchups, both Floridians currently lose to Clinton, who enjoys deep support among Hispanics.
Candidates play up a harder edge for a reason, polling in early nominating states Iowa and New Hampshire shows. In Iowa, 53 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers and 56 percent of New Hampshire GOP primary voters said they were less likely to support a candidate who backs a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
An array of other polls have shown support increases when voters are told that a pathway — or legal status, as Bush advocates — is coupled with fines and other penalties. But that message has been drowned out in the Summer of Trump.
"We have to bring back this country. We need borders. We need strength," Trump told reporters Wednesday as he waited to speak at an anti-Iran rally outside the U.S. Capitol. He was dismissing criticism from Ben Carson, who has surged in the polls, that Trump's immigration plan is overly costly and unreasonable.
"It sounds really cool, you know, 'Let's just round them all up and send them back,' " Carson said Tuesday. "People who say that have no idea what that would entail in terms of our legal system, the costs — forget about it. Plus, where you going to send them? It's just a double whammy."
Asked about concern he was hurting the GOP among Hispanics, Trump pointed to a disputed poll showing him leading among Hispanics in Nevada. He also claimed broad support among African-Americans.
The rally remained on message, but Trump's appeal on the immigration issue was evident.
"It's against the law. It's actually a simple issue; it's wrong," said Elaine Scott, 70, who flew in from Houston.
"If you don't think there's an immigration problem," added her friend Marian Manchack, 73, "go to Texas. They are just coming."
Contact Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @learyreports.